• Tapping for Taste

    Tapping for Taste

    There are people in Vermont who prefer fake maple syrup—not just people who are looking for something cheaper but who actually prefer the stuff made of corn syrup. There are other people in Vermont who don’t talk to those fake syrup types. And there are Vermonters who stand by Grade B for all occasions and others who keep a little Fancy on hand.

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  • Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    On summer evenings in the garden in Weathersfield, I know it’s nearly time to call it a day when the train whistle blows; over the river, Amtrak’s Vermonter is about to cross the highway in Cornish. As I stand up, knees cracking from too-long bending over the rows of carrots that want thinning, I think about the train on its trek north to St. Albans, and how tomorrow it will head south to Washington, DC. Back and forth, more than 600 miles, each day, every day.

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  • The First Localvores

    The First Localvores

    I have always been fascinated by wild foods. When I was a kid growing up in Indiana we had a copy of Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and I remember how exciting it was to read about eating cattails, making acorn flour, and brewing sassafras tea. As I recall, the cattail stalks tasted a bit like mild turnips, the acorn flour was tannic and needed a lot of processing before being edible, and the tea tasted like something just this side of root beer. Little did I know as a kid that wild edibles such as cattails and acorns were just a couple of the foods historically gathered and consumed by the first people to inhabit the state I would one day call home.

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  • Taking it Slow in Italy

    Taking it Slow in Italy

    Getting together, the listening to and exchanging of ideas— that is the miracle of Terra Madre.”

    With this, Slow Food International founder Carlo Petrini welcomed us to the 2010 Terra Madre conference and set the tone for our four days in Turin, Italy. He addressed an audience of 5,000 representatives from 161 countries—small-scale farmers, producers, educators, and observers—who had traveled to Italy to meet with their peers and discuss global issues of food, culture, and justice. We came to take part in the conversation, too, along with two dozen other Vermonters. The experience renewed our appreciation for the value of gathering around a table to break bread and to exchange ideas.

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  • Cookbooks, Culture,  and Community

    Cookbooks, Culture, and Community

    The case for local nuts. No, I’m not talking about your odd mother-in-law, your bizarre ex-boyfriend, or that whacko who expresses herself, extensively, at town meeting. And I don’t mean aficionados or extremely enthusiastic people. I mean those portable nuggets of nutrition, held aloft by tree limbs. A nut, technically speaking, is a big seed enclosed by a hard shell. And even though you’re now fantasizing about almond and macadamia instead of weirdo and diehard, I’m here to tell you about what nuts we can grow in Vermont, and why.

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  • Post Oil Solutions at Five Years

    Post Oil Solutions at Five Years

    A strong regional food system—one in which the people of a region are participating in their own food production in both sustaining and sustainable ways—is community based. As much as this system grows food, it grows people, encouraging relationships of collaboration and mutual aid, respect and care. No longer at war with nature and each other, unburdened by that ancient power relationship of us over them, and having given up the self-destructive effort to control life, people actively work with life in a community-based food system. In this way, they practice “relational agriculture,” building the social fabric that leads to a truly sustainable food system for all.

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  • Halal in the Hills

    Halal in the Hills

    Art Meade is a 59-year-old livestock and poultry farmer with a thick Maine accent and a farm on Route 100 in Morrisville. He also happens to run the only state-licensed slaughter facility in Vermont that caters to Muslims who practice halal slaughter. This is the Muslim tradition of swiftly slitting the throat of a domesticated meat animal with a sharp knife; the animal is believed to be killed instantly and painlessly (though there is some debate about that). Muslims, who are directed by their religion to eat halal meat, can purchase such meat in Vermont stores, but some prefer to do the slaughter themselves.

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  • New to America,  Old Hands at Agriculture

    New to America, Old Hands at Agriculture

    There’s something exciting happening at the Intervale. “So what else is new?” you might say. “There’s always something interesting happening at the Intervale.” But not every day do you see families from more than four different countries, speaking a mix of different languages, planting lenga-lenga, molukhia, or Asian mustards side by side in a lush valley in Vermont. This summer that will be the scene at the gardens at Ethan Allen Homestead, a field at the Intervale Center in Burlington, and on farmland in Shelburne.

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  • Set the Table with Switchel

    Set the Table with Switchel

    Long a staple in Northeast hayfields as a thirst quencher and restorative, switchel—alternatively called “haymaker’s punch” —was a colonial era proto-Gatorade, a source of both hydration and electrolyte replenishment. Recipes vary, but the most common ingredients were molasses, cider vinegar, and ginger, mixed to taste in a jug of very cold well water. While the concoction could have provided benefit to all manner of laborers and sporting folks, its use was particularly common among the workers of the hayfield and the children who carried the switchel jug to them.

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  • Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    “The farming of our fathers was exceedingly simple, content to draw from a virgin soil the supplies of simple wants, instead of aiming itself for their increase. With the impoverishment of the soil, with the forests almost swept off the face of the country and the consequent climate change, with the multiplied wants of society and development of so many new industries, the highest intelligence and energies are required to remodel our system of agriculture so that it may fully meet the demands made upon it.

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  • A Farmhouse Feeds Its Neighbors

    A Farmhouse Feeds Its Neighbors

    When Joseph Kiefer and Martin Kemple founded Food Works in 1987, phrases such as “food security” and “local food system” had yet to come into common parlance. It was ambitious—maybe even radical at the time—to think of using gardens and locally grown food to address the root causes of childhood hunger.

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  • Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    In the not-so-distant past, eating locally was a way of life and a matter of necessity. For four generations, the Robinson family farmed in Ferrisburgh, at the place known today as the Rokeby Museum. The museum’s collection includes correspondence and household records detailing the family’s ways of farming, preserving, and eating. In the last of this four-part series, we take a look at how the Robinsons cooked, ate, and farmed in the late 1800s.

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  • How to Start a Community Garden

    How to Start a Community Garden

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • Getting Everyone to the Table

    Getting Everyone to the Table

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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Bartered, Smuggled, and Bought

The History of Salt in Vermont

Illustration: view of a salt works on the Merrimack River, near Newburyport, Massachusetts, with large meadow in the foreground. Robert Aitken 1735–1802. Library of Congress.
Illustration: view of a salt works on the Merrimack River, near Newburyport, Massachusetts, Robert Aitken 1735–1802. Library of Congress.

Written By

Pat McGovern

Written on

March 01 , 2009

When the Upper Valley Localvores took their first 100–mile diet challenge in August 2005, we came upon a serious stumbling block. No local salt! Tomatoes and corn–on–the–cob were abundant, but oh, we needed salt. Fortunately, one of our members had vacationed in Maine and brought back a precious supply of sea salt. (Thereafter, Localvore Challenges allowed for the use of a few non–local staple items such as salt and spices.) It made us wonder what our Upper Valley ancestors had done for salt.

One would never guess from the bad press salt gets today that it’s an essential nutrient. All mammals need it. Early humans obtained salt from the wild animals they ate; wild animals found natural salt licks to meet their needs. But with the domestication of animals for meat and the addition of more vegetables to their diet, humans needed to find new sources of salt for their animals and for themselves.

Prior to modern refrigeration, salt was also needed to store pork, beef, fish, and venison and other game. Think of traditional New England dishes: New England boiled dinner, made with corned beef (which was salted beef, “corns” being any small bits such as salt crystals); codfish cakes (made with salt cod); and Boston baked beans with salt pork (made from the flank or belly of the pig). Also think of the brine–filled pickle barrels of old–time country stores. Where did our Vermont ancestors get their salt?

Many of Vermont’s early settlers in the southeastern part of the state traded their small surpluses (cattle, potash, and other farm produce) in Portsmouth or Boston in return for staples such as salt. There was also trade with ports along the Connecticut River. In the Champlain Valley, rafts and other boats headed north on Lake Champlain to trade their wares for salt and other imported goods in Montreal. Trade also took place across the lake with Troy and Albany. As village stores were established, farmers were able to stay closer to home and exchange surplus farm produce for salt and other staples.

Prior to the American Revolution, most salt was imported from England, Spain, Portugal, and British colonies in the Caribbean. Salt was critical to the fishing industry of coastal New England, since most of the catch was preserved as dried salt fish. There were a few domestic salt works located along the New England coast—such as those in Salem, Salisbury, and Glouster in Massachusetts—but wet weather made the evaporation process difficult.

Then in 1775, in response to rebellion in the colonies, the British imposed a naval blockade, causing a serious shortage of salt and other imports. Colonists on the coast responded by boiling sea water, using an enormous quantity of wood to produce a small amount of salt. (Four hundred gallons of seawater were needed to make one bushel, or 50 pounds, of salt.) When a congressional committee proposed financial incentives for domestic production of salt, one of the many salt operations to start up was in Dennis, on Cape Cod. Windmills pumped seawater through pine log pipes to evaporation pans, but this could only work in summer when solar evaporation was viable.

Trade resumed with England after the Revolution, but in 1808, in response to a naval incident that killed three Americans during hostilities between the British and the French, President Thomas Jefferson imposed an embargo on trade with England and its colonies, including Canada. According to The Vermont Encyclopedia, “The embargo created economic hardships for northern Vermont and New York, which had no access to other markets. Commerce continued by smuggling. Vermonters traded livestock and lumber for staples such as salt, coffee and cloth, often in sight of the British Army stationed near the border.” The smuggling was frequently via Lake Champlain or overland through the area now known, fittingly, as Smugglers Notch. (Goods were often cached in the mountain caves and caverns while in transit.)

Even after the embargo was lifted, Vermonters resisted the duty tax on goods imported from Canada. History records the sad and poignant story of Harrington Brooks of St. Albans, a 24-year–old father of two children, who was shot and killed while attempting to escape from customs officials with a skiff–load of salt. He was returning from St. Johns in Canada, on November 3, 1811. When ordered to stop, he told the customs officials that his seven bushels of salt were destined for five different families who needed to cure their pork but had no salt in St. Albans. He offered to pay the duties if allowed to proceed. The customs officials insisted on seizing the skiff and a chase and exchange of shots ensued, with Brooks eventually being killed. According to one source, “He pulled open his shirt and exclaimed, ‘See what they have done,’ and fell forward dead upon the loading of the boat, covering the salt–bags with his blood.”

Today, the hazards of salt are not in its deficiency nor in dangers involved in its trade. Instead, salt is abundant and inexpensive and we tend to use too much. The Great Salt Lake produces much of America’s salt, as does a large salt mine below the city of Detroit. In Vermont, localvores look to Maine, where salt–making happens much as it did in the past.

At the Maine Sea Salt Company in Marshfield, ME, fresh seawater from the Gulf of Maine is evaporated in greenhouses, known as “salt houses.” Wind and the heat of the sun evaporate the water. When evaporation is complete, the coarse, unrefined salt is ready for packaging. (It is different from refined table salt and is not iodized.) The Maine Sea Salt Company offers salts seasoned with seaweed, herbs, garlic, and pepper, and there is a smoked sea salt as well.

Illustration: view of a salt works on the Merrimack River, near Newburyport, Massachusetts, with large meadow in the foreground. Robert Aitken 1735–1802. Library of Congress.

About the Author

Pat McGovern

Pat McGovern

Pat McGovern is a retired teacher, an advocate for local foods, and one of the founders of Upper Valley Localvores. (Check out her blog at uvlocalvores.wordpress.com) She is also a volunteer manager of the Canillas Community Garden in Lebanon, NH.

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